Posted February 13, 2013

Law School receives $1.5 million gift to establish social justice center

Gift from Sheller Family Foundation builds on donors' legacy of support for disenfranchised

Kelly and Massa Photography
Sandra and Stephen Sheller have made a $1.5 million gift to the Beasley School of Law to establish a center addressing the city’s urgent social justice needs.

Stephen and Sandra Sheller, who have spent their respective careers in law and behavioral health treatment advocating for the poor, powerless and those experiencing injustice, have made a $1.5 million gift to establish a new center to further that cause at the Temple University Beasley School of Law.

The Stephen and Sandra Sheller Center for Social Justice will partner with non-profit groups and city agencies to identify and address urgent social justice needs in the city and region. Set to open this spring in Temple’s Howard Gittis Student Center, the new center will build on Temple Law’s 50-year tradition of offering legal assistance to those in need, while providing hands-on learning experience for law students.

“The law school is always seeking creative solutions to address the ways in which we fall short of the promise of justice for all,” said Temple Law Dean JoAnne Epps. “The Stephen and Sandra Sheller Center for Social Justice will help us realize this goal. It’s recognition of the historic mission of Temple and our abiding commitment to assist the community around us as we educate our students.”

"Temple is the perfect place for this. If we can affect the way justice happens, we can impact, on a large scale, a lot of lives for the better."
-- Stephen Sheller

“Temple is the perfect place for this,” said Stephen Sheller. “If we can affect the way justice happens, we can impact, on a large scale, a lot of lives for the better.”

In more than four decades as a leading national litigator, Sheller’s causes have ranged from civil rights, to voter protection, to employment discrimination, to consumer fraud and protection. He has won some of the largest civil and criminal settlements in U.S. history.

As an art and family therapist, Sandra Sheller’s work with families experiencing homelessness and those who serve them birthed in her a passion to broaden her sphere of influence in helping those struggling with poverty, oppression and disenfranchisement. In 2006, the Shellers founded the Sheller Family Foundation to expand their commitment to improving lives. The foundation has become a vehicle to support institutions and programs that champion the causes of the underprivileged, underserved and marginalized; expose and remediate corrupt and unethical conduct; and effect significant, structural social change.

“I have seen that a lot of struggling people have really lost their voice,” said Sandra. “We talk a lot about freedoms that Americans have, and a lot of times, if you’re combating poverty and oppression, you can’t really partake of those freedoms. So the whole idea is on a higher level to advocate for those people who don’t have a voice and maybe even empower them to advocate for themselves.”

According to Epps, the center will follow the needs of the community, whether they be in civil liberties, the environment, consumer protection or disabilities rights. A board of directors comprising legal experts and community leaders to be organized this summer will meet with non-profit agencies and community leaders. They will identify the causes that are most urgent and support area residents who lack access to adequate legal representation.

The center will be a think tank where participating law students and young alumni work together with faculty and practicing lawyers to receive invaluable experiential training in legal research, advocacy and policy development. When issues call for changes to policy, the center will work to make those changes through white papers and legislative proposals. And when litigation is required, they will pursue that as well.

The center is an extension of Temple Law’s significant commitment to public service. Each year, the school places graduates in public interest positions at rates well above regional and national averages. In a typical year, one-third of graduating students are members of the Public Interest Law Honor Society, which requires 50 hours of pro bono work.

“I hope we will be a model for how a law school can both contribute to the education of their students and make meaningful change in the community,” said Epps.

— Ashwin Verghese and Eryn Jelesiewicz